SONOMA COUNTY – Local health care stakeholders have long protested the exclusion of parts of Sonoma County from the state’s medically underserved list, and this month officials will commence an effort to earn the designation that includes better reimbursement rates and added funding for physician recruitment.

“We think the current scores from the state are not reflective of the actual availability of physicians in parts of the county. It doesn’t take into consideration how many doctors are actually working, what payers they accept and other issues that affect capacity,” said Pedro Toledo, spokesman for the Redwood Community Health Coalition, which earned a grant for the effort from the California Endowment.

The coalition is the advocacy organization representing the region’s federally qualified health centers, which serve the uninsured, underinsured and low-income.

“The state data is also a couple years old, and we expect some doctors have since retired, stopped seeing Medi-Cal or are close to retiring,” Mr. Toledo said.

In collaboration with the Sonoma County Department of Public Health, the Sonoma County Medical Association, Sutter Medical Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and others, the effort will begin with a survey sent to physician groups and individuals likely sometime beginning next week and through November.

The assessment was also a decision of the primary care collaborative of the county-organized advocacy team, Sonoma Health Action.

“What is really unique about this effort is that it is really bringing together all these different sectors of the health care system in the county, public and private,” said Sonoma Public Health Officer Dr. Mary Maddux-González.

“The idea is not just getting better reimbursement rates for doctors, but really increasing access to primary care for patients, which we see as essential for promoting this idea of having a medical home.”

The questionnaire asks the physician to provide his or her practice area, contact information, hours, patient volume and average visits per month. The document also requests forms of payment accepted and how many hours they spend weekly researching, teaching, administrating or providing primary care.

In addition to capacity questions, physicians are asked about their practice environment, including whether electronic records are used, how chronic conditions are tracked, if patients can e-mail, payer mix and whether the doctors have hospital privileges.

Once the results are compiled, the statistics will be submitted to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, which decides the designations. If an area is assigned an underserved ranking, doctors that see Medi-Cal and Medicare patients earn a $5,000 bonus and higher care reimbursements.

Also, new doctors to the area would be eligible for school loan forgiveness and other incentives. Some areas of the county are already designated as underserved but can also receive an elevated-need score that includes further financial benefits.

The groups expect to complete the survey and analysis in January.